Launch!

Today was the day we’ve been building up to for so many years: launch!   Today the telescope that so many of us have put so much time into was tied to a giant helium balloon and thrust into the stratosphere.  It was a day of incredibly high highs and low lows, and in a real sense the day is not over yet.  Before I take a nap, here is a bit about what it was like.

SPIDER had its pickup rehearsal on Tuesday and its hang test on Wednesday.  These were intensive events, both for our team and for the riggers and CSBF engineers who support Antarctic ballooning.  Late Wednesday we suddenly found ourselves in a spell of clear weather expected to last through most of Thursday, with a tired team and a less-than-full liquid helium tank.  After the hang test we hurried SPIDER back into the high bay and spent the afternoon and evening filling it to the brim with liquid helium and finishing last-minute taping jobs.  The riggers, engineers, and most of our team went back to get some shuteye before our first launch attempt, scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday morning – New Year’s Day.

A launch attempt is an elaborate process that begins long before the target launch time.  Members of our team arrived early to prepare, some staying overnight, some taking shuttles to LDB at 1:30 and 3:00 a.m.  The riggers and CSBF team arrived in time to attach SPIDER to the Boss at 4:00 a.m.

I was part of the “late” shift – I slept fitfully, arrived at 7:30 a.m., and hoped to be fresh for launch and line-of-sight.  By the time I arrived, SPIDER was loaded on the Boss and pulled back from the deck.  Circa 8 a.m. SPIDER proceeded to the launch pad, followed by support vehicles carrying the flight train and helium gas.  The balloon did not go out at this stage: it can’t easily be put back into its box, so it’s only unfurled when it’s go time.

The Boss taking SPIDER out to the pad, with Mt. Erebus in the background.

The Boss taking SPIDER out to the pad, with Mt. Erebus in the background.

The spool, on its way to the pad.

The spool, on its way to the pad.

Two trucks filled with helium gas, heading to the pad.

Two trucks filled with helium gas, heading to the pad.

At least two scientists stayed on the Boss at all times pre-flight to check on the pump maintaining the vacuum on the superfluid tank.  Around 9 a.m. we were given a window for photos, so a bunch of us trooped out to the launch pad in hard hats to take a few last pictures of (and with) SPIDER.  Everything was happening quickly and according to plan, and we all dared to believe it would all come off easily on the first try…

Selfie with SPIDER, launch-ready on the pad.

Selfie with SPIDER, launch-ready on the pad.

Lorenzo and I, representing the Caltech detector team on the ice.

Lorenzo and I, representing the Caltech detector team on the ice. (photo by Steve Benton)

Hero shot with SPIDER

Hero shot with SPIDER (photo by Steve Benton)

The flight train (parachute and hang lines) laid out from the payload.  The balloon will attach to this end.

The flight train (parachute and hang lines) laid out from the payload. The balloon will attach to this end.

By late morning the winds had turned, and the launch conditions had become marginal at best.  So we waited. The weather didn’t look good for the coming couple of days, so we all hoped to be able to get off the ground.  Many times we were certain we were going to pack up and go home, until the wind gave us a glimmer of hope. It was agonizing.  So late in the season, with bad weather on the way, it wasn’t clear when (or if) there would be another good launch day.  Even if there was, every day of delay is very costly in additional liquid helium.  On a more personal note, I have a wife and daughter at home and will be moving to a new city soon after I return; every day of delay is hard on my family.  I spent much of the day pacing, inside and outside, as did many of my colleagues.

A bit after 3 p.m. our fortunes turned, and the NASA team decided that conditions were good.  There was jubilation in our high bay, and throughout LDB.  The balloon was laid out and attached to SPIDER.  Inflation began near 4 p.m.  We all gathered at the edge of the launch pad to watch, scarcely believing that we would be dangling years of work from the rapidly-growing gas bag upwind of the Boss.  In the final moments our project leader, Bill Jones, stood on a lift to remove the final piece of pump plumbing and close up the corresponding door in the sun shield.

SPIDER and its balloon, ready to launch!

SPIDER and its balloon, ready to launch!

The balloon, with cloud-capped Erebus.

The balloon, with cloud-capped Erebus.

Launch came at 4:59:38 p.m. McMurdo time (NZDT).  The balloon was released and swung up over the gondola.  The Boss danced back and forth a bit to align SPIDER under the balloon, then released it to fly free.  The release made a loud sound which struck fear into the hearts of those who built the gondola, but SPIDER was no worse for wear.  We all jumped for joy and hugged one another.

I took a brief video of the launch with my iPhone, focusing on the balloon: http://youtu.be/Bgdrq1vzXEY.  Jon Gudmundsson took a higher quality video focusing on the payload itself: http://youtu.be/yaYqKqeBuHo.

Launched!

Launched!

After a few moments of celebration, it was back to work.  The team needed to check the functionality of all of SPIDER’s systems, tune up its gondola and pointing systems, and start understanding the data it was producing.  As of this writing, all of the major systems are working spectacularly.  The balloon is currently floating 120,000 feet above us, still clearly visible in the sky as it drifts lazily toward the horizon.

Working on SPIDER here in Antarctica has been an incredible experience.  It has taken me to one of the most amazing locations on earth to do something totally crazy, all in service of understanding the workings of the universe.  I couldn’t ask for a better team of people to work with, both down here and back at home.  Now it’s time to do some Science.

Farewell, SPIDER.  Enjoy space...

Farewell, SPIDER. Enjoy space…

Ready to Fly!

Today SPIDER completed its final pre-launch milestone: compatibility, commonly called the “hang test”.  This means that we are flight-ready for the next available launch date, which could be as soon as tomorrow (New Year’s Day 2015, our time).  Fingers crossed…

The hang test is both a rehearsal of launch operations and a test of all in-flight communications and control systems.  The completed payload was hung from the Boss (our launch vehicle, a highly-customized crane) and lifted off of our deck.  We had a pre-rehearsal test of that process yesterday, during which we ironed out a few procedure kinks (i.e. how to reach the top of the gondola to install the Boss hook!).  The CSBF team then installed a handful of launch parts on the undercarriage, notably the solar panels that power the NASA electronics package and the ballast hopper.  SPIDER uses a pump to maintain its superfluid helium tank on the ground (at float it is just open to space), so that pump needs to be carefully transferred to the deck of the Boss.  The Boss then carried SPIDER back from the deck as if to take it to the launch pad, held it there for a couple of hours while we checked telemetry, and then returned it to the deck.

Now it’s time to get this in the air and do some science…

Fully operational battle station

Fully operational battle station!

SPIDER hanging from the Boss, as it will during launch operations.

SPIDER hanging from the Boss, as it will during launch operations, with Mt. Erebus in the background.

SPIDER with the happy parents: Bill and Barth, PIs of our project!

The proud parents: Bill and Barth, PIs of our project.

COSI/SPB Aloft!

This morning saw the second LDB launch of the season!  The payload, COSI, is a gamma ray telescope built by Steve Boggs’s team at Berkeley and collaborators.  COSI uses an array of cooled germanium detectors to measure the energy and direction of incoming gamma rays from space, based upon the way they Compton scatter among the detectors.

The balloon also generated a large amount of interest, since COSI is the first science payload for NASA’s new super-pressure balloon (SPB).  SPBs, also known as Ultra-Long Duration Balloons (ULBDs) are designed to stay aloft for hundreds of days, rather than the dozens achieved with current heavy-lift balloons.  Unlike most payloads, which spiral around the Pole and land in Antarctica, COSI/SPB hopes to leave the continent entirely and fly for months across the ocean.  COSI hopes to be recovered in Chile or Africa, but should get plenty of useful data back over telemetry even if it is lost in the ocean.  ULDB flights are hugely anticipated in the astronomical community, because they will enable extremely long mid-latitude flights – a real competitor to a satellite for certain applications (and much, much cheaper!).

I was lucky enough to be on-station to witness this one in person (which involved coming in on a 3:30 a.m. shuttle before they closed the road…).  During launch prep a thick fog rolled in, such that we couldn’t even see the Boss from the edge of the pad.  We missed the initial inflation entirely, including the unique “tow balloon” that lifts up the top portion of the SPB during the initial stages of inflation.  Fortunately the fog rolled back during inflation, allowing us to see the action.

COSI preparing to launch.  The balloon is on the left, the launch vehicle holding COSI on the right, the flight train in between.

COSI preparing to launch. The balloon is on the left, the launch vehicle holding COSI on the right, the flight train in between.

Launch was made particularly spectacular by the haze left by the dense fog bank.  From our vantage point the balloon eclipsed the sun, which was incredible to watch.  My colleague Jon Gudmundsson has posted a great video of the launch, up through the eclipse.

COSI/SPB released into the foggy sky!

COSI/SPB released into the foggy sky!

During COSI’s initial ascent, ice crystals formed a remarkable halo around the sun.  This formed a hazy, sparkling rainbow (actually multiple “icebows”) that the payload drifted by, as well as a dramatic spotlight effect beneath the sun.

COSI aloft, passing by an icebow (rainbow caused by ice crystals)

COSI aloft, passing by an icebow (rainbow caused by ice crystals)

A bizarre spotlight effect beneath the sun, just after launch.  The Boss is visible just to the right of the spotlight.

A bizarre spotlight effect beneath the sun, just after launch. The Boss is visible just to the right of the spotlight.

Congratulations to the COSI team!  Our turn comes next…

Adelie Penguin!

Today at LDB we were graced with another distinguished visitor – an Adelie penguin!  These are substantially smaller than the Emperor that visited two weeks ago, but all the cuter for it.  The penguin hung out at LDB for much of the day (in fact, he’s still outside our high bay as I write this).

After an active spell before I arrived, he spent a good bit of the late morning chilling out on his belly.

Today's distinguished visitor: an Adelie penguin!

Today’s distinguished visitor: an Adelie penguin!

His activity increased a bit after lunch, particularly when a helicopter flew fairly low over LDB on the way to Willy Field (itself an unusual event).  The thumping noise reverberated off the shipping containers and got the penguin a little excited, so that it scampered around in front of me frantically (which was fantastic – I need to post an animated GIF of that) and got a little closer to me than I would naturally have gone.  It calmed down fairly quickly once the helicopter passed.

"SPIDER is over there!"

“SPIDER is over there!”

Ready for a close-up

Ready for a close-up

Later in the afternoon it was nap time for the penguin, where he remains currently.

Sleepytime

Sleepytime

Finally, a couple of photos by others:

Obligatory buddy shot; the penguin scooted a little closer to me than I intended! (photo by Sasha Rahlin)

Obligatory buddy shot in front of LDB (photo by Sasha Rahlin)

Penguin scooting majestically before SPIDER (photo by Cynthia Chiang)

Penguin scooting majestically before SPIDER (photo by Cynthia Chiang)

White Christmas

Christmas day out at LDB was a beautiful one.  It started snowing on Christmas Eve and throughout much of Christmas, leaving the ground soft and the air filled with big, fluffy snowflakes.  Our night shift took advantage of some time alone with the cryostat to decorate the payload for the holiday season, a nice surprise when the rest of us arrived in the morning:

SPIDER's Christmas decorations, courtesy of night shift.

SPIDER’s Christmas decorations, courtesy of night shift.

Steve put up pictures (and a poem!) on his blog – see there for more and better photos!  I’ve attached my favorite of his: SPIDER, fully decorated, seen through the open high bay doors in the snow:

SPIDER seen through the open high bay doors in the snow.  Photo by Steve Benton.

SPIDER seen through the open high bay doors in the snow. Photo by Steve Benton.

The LDB galley had served us a fine holiday lunch on the 24th.  Since most of the CSBF ballooning folks are from Texas, the galley decorations included a little Texas charm:

Tiny Christmas tree in the LDB galley

Tiny Christmas tree in the LDB galley

The 25th and 26th were days off for almost everyone in McMurdo, but not for us.  Our payload is almost flight-ready, but we still had a lot of work to do.  We returned to time in town for dinner, however, which was again an absolute joy.  The main course was among my favorite foods: delicious beef, king crab legs, and assorted other seafood.  It was a good evening, and a good break.

Christmas dinner at McMurdo: beef, king crab legs, and much more

Christmas dinner at McMurdo: beef, king crab legs, and much more

Since we’re across the international date line from the U.S., I called my family in the morning from LDB.  I’m enjoying Antarctica, but still looking forward to getting SPIDER in the air and returning home.

Hanging Out on the Porch

SPIDER is fast approaching flight-readiness, which is very exciting for all of us here.  Last week saw the installation of its last major components: the sun shield, the wing, and the solar panels.

The sun shield is an enormous shell built from carbon fiber struts and gift-wrapped with aluminized Mylar.  It surrounds the back of the instrument like a turtle shell, protecting it from the glare of the sun and supporting our communication antennas.  At balloon altitudes the air is so thin that parts couple to their surroundings mostly through radiation.  A part facing the sun will quickly heat and even melt, while one in the shade will lose its heat to the blackness of space and fall to very low temperatures.  The Toronto team has put enormous effort in to planning out SPIDER’s thermal architecture: which parts should be mirrored or painted white, which need radiator fins, and how heat should be exchanged between hot and cold parts.  SPIDER will fly with its back to the sun, with the sun shields protecting the delicate instrumentation as it scans black sky.

The wing is an asymmetric extension to one side of the sun shield.  It gives SPIDER’s telescopes a little extra sun protection on that side, so that it can scan a little closer to the sun and cover a bit more sky.

The solar panels are SPIDER’s power plant, providing the electricity needed to operate the entire payload.  SPIDER’s solar cells live on a single massive panel on the wing side of the payload, giving the whole instrument an asymmetric appearance.  They face backward toward the sun in flight, charging a set of car batteries through a charge controller.

With SPIDER nearly complete, we took it on its first trip outside the high bay.  We opened the bay doors and slid it out onto our porch, hanging from the rail crane just as it will hang from the balloon.  We spent some time scanning the instrument, checking the solar panels under sunlight,  and calibrating the pinhole sun sensors – simple light sensors behind pinholes which record our orientation with respect to the sun.  We came back inside when we encountered a few issues with an external pump (later fixed).

This week we’ll be carrying out more extensive testing outside of the high bay, including flight systems and communications.  Launch is fast approaching…

SPIDER sliding out onto the high bay porch, hanging from the central crane rail.  The central white cylinder is the cryostat, with its six telescope apertures.  The sun shield surrounds the back, with the wing extension on the right.  The solar panels peek out from behind the wing.  Liquid helium and liquid nitrogen dewars are arrayed on the porch edge in front of SPIDER.

SPIDER sliding out onto the high bay porch, hanging from the central crane rail. The central white cylinder is the cryostat, with its six telescope apertures. The sun shield (not quite complete) surrounds the back, with the wing extension on the right. The solar panels peek out from behind the wing.  The cardboard lens caps of the three star cameras are visible below and to the upper-right of the cryostat.  Liquid helium and liquid nitrogen dewars are arrayed on the porch edge in front of SPIDER.

SPIDER on the porch, as seen from within the high bay.  The solar panels and reflective sun shields are clearly visible, as are several cold scientists.

SPIDER on the porch, as seen from within the high bay. The solar panels and reflective sun shields are clearly visible, as are several cold scientists.  Communication antennas project from the top of the sun shield.

Distinguished Visitors

This week saw the arrival of a large group of DVs (Distinguished Vistors, in local lingo) to the Ice: a delegation of 10 members of Congress, staffers, and members of the NSF and NASA leadership.  Most of the Congressional visitors were members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology: from the Republican side of the aisle, Lamar Smith (Chair, TX), Mo Brooks (AL), David Schweikert (AZ), and Chris Collins (NY); from the Democratic side, Donna Edwards (MD), Suzanne Bonamici (OR), and Eric Swalwell (CA).  Also visiting were Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA), Todd Rokita (R-IN), and Jerry McNerney (D-CA).  They were guided by Dr. France Cordova (Director, National Science Foundation), Dr. Kelly Falkner (NSF Division Director, Polar Programs), Dr. Scott Borg (NSF Head of Antarctic Sciences), Brian Stone (NSF Section Head, Antarctic Infrastructure & Logistics), and Dr. John Grunsfeld (NASA, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate).

The U.S. Antarctic Program rolled out the red carpet for the delegation, with a three-day program showing off the impressive variety of work being done on the continent.  Their first stop after landing on the continent was to visit us out at LDB, and as part of the tour they piled into our high bay to visit SPIDER.  It was fun chatting with the Representatives, and I particularly enjoyed speaking with Dr. Cordova, the NSF Director.  It was gratifying seeing so many powerful people crowding to take photos of our work!

Prof. Bill Jones (lower right) explaining SPIDER to the visiting Congressional delegation and NSF/NASA leadership.

Prof. Bill Jones (lower right) explaining SPIDER to the visiting Congressional delegation and NSF/NASA leadership.  SPIDER is just beyond the right edge of the photo.

The delegation took a day trip to the South Pole the next day, returning to McMurdo that evening for a special NSF-hosted reception.  The reception was invitation-only, with invitations apparently assigned mostly based upon what state you were from.  Four young people from SPIDER scored invitations, including me.  The food was excellent, and it was a lot of fun chatting with the DVs and meeting other scientists and support personnel.

The SPIDER team was particularly excited to speak with Dr. Grunsfeld.  He leads NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which funds the scientific balloon program, and is himself a Ph.D. physicist with an extensive background in balloon-borne astrophysics.  He’s also a former astronaut who personally repaired the Hubble Space Telescope (not once, but three times!), and who famously called into the radio show Car Talk from space.  We all enjoyed meeting him and chatting about his work and ours.  All in all a fun evening!

John Grunsfeld talking us through what to expect from the James Webb Space Telescope and a concept for its successor, the High-Definition Space Telescope.

John Grunsfeld talking us through what to expect from the James Webb Space Telescope and a concept for its successor, the High-Definition Space Telescope.

Members of the SPIDER team with NASA's John Grunsfeld.  Left to right: me, Ziggy Kermish, John Grunsfeld, Ed Young, and Lorenzo Moncelsi.

Members of the SPIDER team with NASA’s John Grunsfeld. Left to right: me, Ziggy Kermish, John Grunsfeld, Ed Young, and Lorenzo Moncelsi.  (Apologies for the slight distortion near the photo edges…)